I’m not sure if I can convey in actual words how much I enjoyed ‘Me and Earl and the Dying Girl’ by Jesse Andrews. For one thing, it was more hilarious than any book with the word “dying” in the title has any right to be: for example, Faulkner’s ‘As I Lay Dying’ is literally one of the least entertaining books you could read. At no point in ‘As I Lay Dying’ did I need to reach for my inhaler because hysterical laughter was making me wheeze. Honestly, you have to read this book to understand just how laugh-out-loud, fall-off-the-sofa, guffaw-so-much-you-can’t-actually-hold-the-book-or-remember-your-own-name funny this book is. Then you too can alarm your loved ones because you are in a different room laughing so much that they think you are crying and a real actual person has died.
‘Me and Earl and the Dying Girl’ starts with the sentence, “I have no idea how to write this stupid book;” the narrator is Greg Gaines, starting his senior year in high school as the book begins. His resentment about writing the book is expressed throughout, and the level of awkwardness he clearly feels in putting his thoughts down on paper is one of the things that makes his story so hilarious (I am going to keep saying that word. Because it is entirely appropriate) but also sort-of heartbreaking. Greg has made an art-form of avoiding the joining of any cliques or even the making of friends. This isn’t ‘The Rosie Project’ – we don’t spend 300 pages wondering when Greg is going to be diagnosed as “on the spectrum” – he just doesn’t want to talk to people. Even, a lot of the time, his reader. But, my word, Greg is funny. The whole of chapter 15, in which he details each of the films he and Earl have made, had me hyperventilating. I was literally laughing so much I couldn’t hold the book and had to have a little rest. At another point, I was so regaled by a disparaging line about sports teams that I couldn’t physically write out the quote to refer to here, so I wrote the page number instead; now I find that it isn’t even the right page, because this book made me laugh so much I could no longer recognise three-digit numbers.
Greg’s easy life is interrupted when his mother forces him to restart a friendship with Rachel, a girl he knew years ago in Hebrew school; as Rachel is the “dying girl” of the title, things are slightly different now. Greg repeatedly warns us that this is not a love story; in many ways, ‘Me and Earl and the Dying Girl’ is a kind of anti-‘The Fault in our Stars’ – it’s unsentimental and, crucially, the teenagers in the book talk like normal teenagers, not like characters from ‘Dawson’s Creek.’ Greg and Rachel strike up a friendship which is low-key and lacking in drama, during which Greg constantly contemplates how awkward everything is. Although the subject matter of ‘Me and Earl and the Dying Girl’ would seem to put it in a category with the afore-mentioned John Green novel and something like ‘Extraordinary Means’ by Robyn Schneider, the platonic friendship here is more believable and, I think, more touching.
Earl is a particularly brilliant creation; his voice emerges vividly from the page and even his very frequent swearing is entertaining (I will admit to finding profanity quite funny anyway. Blame my years as a football hooligan). Earl is pretty much Greg’s only friend, but, as with Rachel, it is clear that Greg has quite a limited understanding of what Earl’s life is like, which the narrator recognises with hindsight. Andrews cleverly emphasises Greg’s self-absorption by giving us so little detail about Rachel; despite her being mentioned in the title, she remains a mystery. Not in a Margo in ‘Paper Towns’ kind of way, or in a sense that she’s just a cipher for Greg’s feelings; she is just normal and average, which is another way in which Andrews has created believable characters. Even her attitude to her illness strikes a chord as being more realistic than some of the heroism we often see in novels like this.
Look: the title doesn’t leave much room to speculate on what’s going to happen and neither does the narrative itself, but what I really enjoyed about this book was the characters. Even relatively minor figures like Greg’s sisters (Gretchen and Grace – even alliterative names make me laugh), the cat and Mr McCarthy (who is the subject of another amusing subplot involving noodle soup) have a purpose and a distinct voice.Having bought a couple of copies of this for my classroom library before actually reading it myself, I will confess to being slightly terrified by the content of some of Greg and Earl’s conversations but let’s just hope the parents of all my pupils are super-open-minded and see the funny side of ‘Gross-Out Mode’ and the extended joke about Rachel’s decorative pillows. ‘Me and Earl and the Dying Girl’ is just excellent and needs to be read. My advice is to do so in a safe environment with plenty of cushioning in case you laugh so hard you fall off the sofa. Not that I did that. Obviously.